I Can’t Find My Paperless Office For All The Books

I tidied up my office recently and managed to clear out about a couple of boxes full of old paper. Some of these were working drafts of research papers, covered in scrawl (usually red because it shows up more), some were book chapter mark-ups, and some were things like project meeting plans that I could scribble on as people spoke. All of this went into either the secure waste bins (sekrit stuff) or the general recycling because I do try to keep the paper footprint down. However, my question to myself is two-fold:

  • Why do I still have an office full of paper when I have a desktop, (two) laptops, an iPad and an iPhone, and I happily take notes and annotate documents on them?
  • Why am I surrounded by so many books, still?

I don’t think I’ve ever bought as many books as I have bought this year. By default, if I can, I buy them as the electronic and paper form so that I can read them when I travel or when I’m in the office. There are books on graphic design, books on semiotics, books on data visualisation and analysis, and now, somewhat recursively, books on the end of books. My wife found me a book called “This is not the end of the book”, which is a printed conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. I am looking forward to reading it but it has to wait until some of the other books are done. I have just finished Iain M. Banks latest “The Hydrogen Sonata”, am swimming through an unauthorised biography of Led Zeppelin and am still trying to finish off the Derren Brown book that I have been reading on aeroplanes for the past month or so. Sitting behind all this are “Cloud Atlas” and “1Q84”, both of which are officially waiting until I have finished my PhD application portfolio for creative writing. (Yes, dear reader, I’m nervous because they could as easily say ‘No’ as ‘Yes’ but then I will learn how to improve and, if I can’t take that, I shouldn’t be teaching. To thine own dogfood, be as a consumer.)

A book that I hope to read soon!

A book that I hope to read soon!

Why do I still write on paper? Because it feels good. I select pens that feel good to write with, or pencils soft enough to give me a good relationship to the paper. The colour of ink changes as it hits the paper and dries and I am slightly notorious for using inks that do not dry immediately. When I was a winemaker, I used black Bic fine pens, when many other people used wet ink or even fountain pens, because the pen could write on damp paper and, even when you saturated the note, the ink didn’t run. These days, I work in an office and I have the luxury of using a fountain pen to scrawl in red or blue across documents, and I can enjoy the sensation.

Why do I still read on paper? Because it is enjoyable and I have a long relationship with the book, which began from a very early age. The book is also, nontrivially, one of the few information storage devices that can be carried on to a plane without having to be taken from one’s bag or shut down for the periods of take off and landing. I am well aware of the most dangerous points in an aircraft’s cycle and I strongly prefer to be distracted by, if not in-flight entertainment, then a good solid book. But it is also the pleasure of being able to separate the book from the devices that link me into my working world, yet without adding a new data storage management issue. Yes, I could buy a Kindle and not have to check my e-mail, but then I have to buy books from this store and I have to carry that charger or fit it next to my iPad, laptop and phone when travelling. Books, once read, can either be donated to your hosts in another place or can be tossed into the suitcase, making room for yet more books – but of course a device may carry many books. If I have no room in my bag for a book, then I don’t have to worry about the fragility of making space in my carry-on by putting it into the suitcase.

And, where necessary, the book/spider interaction causes more damage to the spider than the contents of the book. My thesis was sufficiently large to stun a small mammal, but you would not believe how hard it was to get ethical approval for that!

The short answer to both questions is that I enjoy using the physical forms although I delight in the practicality, the convenience and the principle of the electronic forms. I am a happy hybridiser who wishes only to enjoy the experience of reading and writing in a way that appeals to me. In a way, the electronic format makes it easier for me to share my physical books. I have a large library of books from when I was younger that, to my knowledge, has books that it is almost impossible to find in print or libraries any more. Yet, I am in that uncomfortable position of being a selfish steward, in that I cannot release some of these books for people to read because I hold the only copy that I know of. As I discover more books in electronic or re-print format (the works of E. Nesbit, Susan Cooper in the children’s collection of my library, for example) then I am free to use the books as they were intended, as books.

What we have now, what is emerging, certainly need not be the end of the book but it will be interesting to look back, in fifty years or so, to find out what we did. If the book has become the analogue watch of information, where it moved from status symbol for its worth, to status symbol for its value, to affectation and, now, to many of my students, an anachronism for those who don’t have good time signal on their phones. I suspect that a watch does not have the sheer enjoyability of the book or the pen on paper, but, if you will excuse me, time will tell.

2 Comments on “I Can’t Find My Paperless Office For All The Books”

  1. Liz Phillips says:

    This post is marvelous! I appreciate the technology that is available to me. It used to be that my classroom, my car, and my house were piled high with things that I needed to teach English Language Arts to young teenagers (with literacy levels ranging from age six through roughly 20). In these days of inclusion, differentiation, and universal design, the technology affords me the luxury of stacking tiers of instruction and deliberate practice models for instructing my students and mentoring other teachers who are interested on clouds. My car is no longer cluttered with file boxes in the boot/trunk or the back passenger seats. My classroom counter top is no longer stacked eight folders high for every lesson that has been taught this week or last (absenteeism issues) or next week’s predicted lesson (for the administrator that might be curious). My house has a spare room, supposedly for guests, which used to be my teacher junk room. It’s pretty much cleared out. I’ve digitized all the necessary papers right down to my research and disposed of anything that I know I no longer need. What is useful for a “traditional” or new teacher has been/will be given away. The rest will be recycled or donated. I appreciate that I only store papers that education researchers should not destroy. That includes a good number of books. I have books everywhere. I read them, I loan them, and I even give them away if a borrower loves a book I’m not emotionally attached to. Surely, I must own a cloud or two in cyber space by now. It’s much better than paying rent on a storage garage or two.

    It is odd that you mention pens. After researching Kipling and Doyle, I rediscovered a love for fountain pens (and antique typewriters) that Grandma Falkner started.. Where I might have had bookcases ten years ago, I think I’d like to have shadowboxes with pens displayed. A tasteful pre-WW2 glass door cabinet to display my 1932 Good Companion typewriter would be ludicrous, really, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it. The keypad is more efficient than the typewriter, but the beauty of the old machine is appreciated. The same for pens. I have cheap ones for students to borrow/keep. There are the ones I use for notes on specific documents and at meetings. There are ballpoint and gel ink pens that I am given as gifts. But there is something about the way a good pen–especially a fountain pen–feels. It’s much like the way a book feels in your hands.

    In my transition from a wholly paper-based upbringing, it is now necessary to buy a laptop/briefcase on wheels. These days, my arms are full of IT equip that I have to take to and from work and/or speaking engagements. I know that my stuff works together, a form of hardware collaboration that supplies me a digital fix for my obsession with learning. I’m an old dog learning new tricks, and I lose patience with those who are stuck in the cranny between filler paper and kindles. Not everybody lives in the clouds yet!


    • nickfalkner says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail of the head, Liz. We can digitise and store those things that we need to (or want to) and reduce the physical load only to those items that we wish to still have in that form. The book stays, because reading a book like is quite pleasurable, but most of my meeting notes never make it off the iPad anymore.

      I have become quite ruthless about how useful something has to be before it makes it into my travelling kit. I have a small orange bag that takes core teaching items and chargers for both laptop and iPad/phone. It also contains a collection of biros that I can give to students, as well as an old small USB stick, also for loaning or me-student transfer. But it contains everything I need to make stuff work and you have to be a good soldier to make it into the goodie bag.

      In terms of the pens, I buy Lamys, because they’re sufficiently reasonably priced that I can use one without worrying what happens if I accidentally misplace it. All the joy of a fountain pen without the stress of carrying around a mortgage payment. 🙂


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